article from May 4, 2011
By Jamie Douglas
Returning to Route 10, about 40 km north of La Padrera, you reach to the staging area to get to Cabo Polonio.
To reach this wonderfully funky outpost of Uruguayan civilization, you have to park your vehicle at the terminal of the giant dune crawlers that will take you to the beach hamlet, which is practically abandoned during the off-season and overrun from December 15 to the end of Easter vacation.
There is no electricity and very little water year round, and the water tanks supplying the houses and shacks that serve guest are filled up by delivery trucks that are allowed to come through the dunes. The ride in and out is one of those adventures you will not easily forget. Crammed onto the back of a monster 4-wheel drive truck that would be equally at home in the Sahara Desert, you will be tossed back and forth along with your fellow passengers until finally you break out of the dunes onto hard packed sand along the beach.
As you approach, you will see a conflagration of “houses” in various states of disrepair or near-collapse. The nation of Uruguay made this a national park in 2009, so that all new construction is prohibited and repairs to existing structures are discouraged by throwing as many bureaucratic hurdles in the way as they can.
We rented a beachfront shack for a couple of days during the season for very little money, put our feet up and watched the world go by while sipping some of that fine Tannat wine, which is rapidly becoming a favorite worldwide. Several restaurants serve surprisingly good food at reasonable prices, and there are two fairly well stocked general stores that probably make the bulk of their profits off of bottled water.
At the southern tip of the cape is a very cool lighthouse that is just inland from a seal rookery. The lighthouse, like the one in La Paloma, is open to the public. Electricity is run to it across the dunes, but it is not shared with any of the private facilities there, which makes for romantic candle- and lantern-lit dinners.
Beyond the rocky tip, the cape is lined with beaches, each with their distinctive characters. There is a curved surfing beach on one side that stretches out along the coastline heading south. The beach heading north is dotted with houses built amongst the shifting dunes. Do not be surprised at finding people in the buff on that stretch, as naturist come here to relax, and nobody is offended by their presence.
When you have had your fill of Cabo Polonio, just go by the “office” of the dune transporters and buy a ticket on the next available trip out. If, upon reaching Route 10 again, you want more beaches, just keep heading north, and you will get a chance to visit Aguas Dulces, Punta Del Diablo, Santa Teresa National Park, La Coronilla and, at last, Barra de Chuy, where you can join the numerous smugglers coming and going from Brazil.
Within the confines of Santa Teresa National Park, you will find the impressive Fortaleza de Santa Teresa, a fort that was originally started by the Portuguese but finished by the Spaniards after they captured control of the region in 1793. In this park, you will also find Cerro Verde, a lovely coastal bluff that enjoys even greater protection than the national park itself. It is a nature preserve within the national park.
All of the beach towns have one thing in common: Hustle and bustle during the season and sleepy or abandoned hamlets out of season. Prices reflect that trend, but by looking around a bit, you can always find decent accommodations, even in the high season.
Upon reaching Chuy, and this is not a necessity, unless you want to buy duty-free stuff and pirated copies of popular music and movies, there are a few very nice restaurants, and crossing into Brazil is as easy as crossing the boulevard that separates the two countries. The median strip is the border, but you don’t have to complete border-crossing formalities until several kilometers into Brazil, something that you cannot do in a rented car at the moment. You need a visa, which you have to get in Montevideo from the Brazilian embassy. It will set US passport holders back US$140 and rising, due to the “reciprocal fee” for the one that is being charged to all residents of non-visa waiver countries wanting to enter the USA.
For your return trip to Montevideo, may I suggest the road even less traveled? Follow Route 19, which heads inland to San Luis al Medio and La Coronilla, until you get to Route 15, where you head south to Lescano, Aigua, and the sweet little city of Minas.
From here, it is just two easy hours back to Montevideo.
I hope will enjoy this trip that you can take a week or two to complete, when you stop to smell Uruguay in all its glory. The highways are in very reasonable shape, and if you can’t swing a rental car, this entire route is easily and inexpensively covered by bus, except for reaching Laguna de Rocha.
All photos by Jamie Douglas and Julie Butler
I encourage you to write me at cruzansailor [at] gmail [dot] com with any questions or suggestions you may have. Disclaimer: I am not in any travel-related business. My advice is based on my own experiences and is free of charge (Donations welcome). It is always my pleasure to act as a beneficial counselor to those who are seekers of the next adventure.